Baltimore County sheriff, police chief feud over turf

December 19, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

When he campaigned for Baltimore County sheriff, Norman M. Pepersack Jr. said he wanted to increase the visibility of the office and make the deputies "another pair of eyes and ears" to deter crime.

After he was elected last fall, he set about doing that.

He won permission from County Executive Roger B. Hayden to put his 47 deputies in marked cruisers, tried to equip deputies with bulletproof vests or body armor, and tried to equip their cars with sirens and emergency lights so they could respond to emergencies. The equipment was needed, he said, because deputies who escort prisoners to court and serve subpoenas often find themselves in danger.

"All I want to do is make sure this office and its people are at their potential for helping people," he said yesterday.

But his actions have sparked a feud with the county police chief, prompted an opinion from the county attorney spelling out the bounds of the sheriff's office and left some in Baltimore County wondering what the law-and-order Republican sheriff will do next.

The request for the lights and sirens was denied based on an opinion from Arnold Jablon, then-deputy county attorney, who was asked by County Administrator Merreen Kelly to research the sheriff's role.

"It is the opinion of the Office of Law that no sheriff's office vehicle could be classified as an emergency vehicle or law enforcement vehicle," said Mr. Jablon's March 15 memo.

Police Chief Cornelius Behan said he would be happy to meet with Sheriff Pepersack to discuss law enforcement, but that the sheriff should first perform the duties he has now -- transporting prisoners.

"I feel very strongly that he has so many duties that I am now doing, that once he's done them all, then I'd be happy to talk with him," Chief Behan said. "I'm not turning my back on any help. But I'm taking my people out of service to do his job."

In November, county police transported an average of 21 prisoners daily to police lockups who should have been transported by sheriff's deputies, said E. Jay Miller, a county police spokesman.

In one two-week period, police transported 178 prisoners from the detention center to court who should have been transported by sheriff's deputies, he said.

"That takes two cops a day, on average, to transport. Those are cops assigned full time to transport prisoners that we think the sheriff ought to be transporting, so the cops could be out on the street where they belong," he said.

The police department is already short-staffed. It has 1,550 authorized positions, but 46 are vacant and about 30 officers have accepted an early retirement package.

The sheriff responded that he's constrained by a tight budget, too.

"I don't have the manpower to serve all the warrants," he said.

But he sees his deputies as trained professionals who could help in emergencies. County sheriff's deputies receive the same 26-week training as police officers, he said.

Chief Behan expressed concern that if sheriff's deputies intervene in a police emergency, someone could be hurt.

"They are trained, that's fine. But if they're not doing this work except occasionally, that doesn't make them sharp," he said.

The feud has led to several incidents:

* Sheriff's Deputy Robert Robertson told the county council Nov. 4 that a deputy's dog intended for drug searches in the detention center was pulled out of the eight-week canine training course at the Baltimore County Police Academy. A police colonel who oversees the academy said he pulled the dog because there was no formal request for training, but the deputy believed it was because of the feud.

The chief said he supported the decision because the police department has dogs to search the jail. He said that if the sheriff's department had another trained dog, a deputy would have to be assigned to it, taking a deputy away from escorting prisoners, which would mean more prisoners for police to escort.

* Sheriff Pepersack recently issued a crime prevention booklet that tells homeowners how to prevent thefts, prompting concern that he wants to get into law enforcement.

"There's no reason for him to get into the crime prevention business," Chief Behan said.

* When convicted rapist Sheldon Lee Arrington was accidentally discharged from the county detention, two off-duty deputies showed up in his Baltimore neighborhood looking for him shortly before county police investigators arrived.

That sparked a formal complaint from residents, who considered the double-barreled visits police harassment.

Sheriff Pepersack said the rapist was released from "his detention center" and commended the deputies.

The chief, who enjoys a national reputation as an expert on law enforcement, community policing and as an advocate for gun control, said he found the sheriff "very personable" the last time they talked -- when Sheriff Pepersack visited his office in January.

"We had a nice talk and we got along well," he said. But he added that "he's been going his own way ever since."

The sheriff, a 23-year veteran of the state police, declined to characterize their relationship.

"Do I get along with him? . . . It's subjective," he said.

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